Big Ideas

Selma Masri, Ph.D.

Tick tock … tick tock. In our digital world, we may not physically hear the sounds of a clock as often as our grandparents did, but timepieces are fully embedded in our phones, televisions, cars, computers and more. Timeliness remains ever-present in our lives and in every cell in our bodies.

Selma Masri, Ph.D., a researcher at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of California, Irvine, is studying the fascinating effects of disruption of circadian rhythms on cancer cells. The circadian clock is our internal biological pacemaker that controls 24-hour cellular rhythms governing gene expression, cell growth and metabolism. Disruption of the circadian clock has been linked to multiple cancer types, including lung, breast, prostate, liver, colon and leukemia/lymphoma.

Masri, a 2018 V Scholar recipient, always loved biology and became fascinated by scientific research as an undergraduate at Pomona College. What started as a work-study position as a dishwasher in her sophomore year, eventually resulted in a research project and senior thesis on bacterial genetics upon graduation. Today, Masri runs her own lab, where she combines her research interests in cancer biology with her postdoctoral research in circadian rhythms and metabolism.

“The fascinating aspect of biology is the challenge of connecting the dots,” said Masri. “Answering unknown questions is what drives us.”

Our internal clock controls sleep and wake cycles, feeding and metabolism. Interestingly, findings from Masri’s lab link interruptions of normal 24-hour rhythms with a higher risk of colon cancer. Yet, the precise process of clock disruption in colon cancer remains undefined. Masri’s team works with mice to understand and change the cues that direct specific cancer-initiating cells.

Since regulating the circadian clock relies on maintaining “normal” behavior that is within a 24-hour period, Masri strictly controls the use of light in her lab by adhering to 12-hour light and 12-hour dark scheduling. Similar to humans, mice are highly susceptible to changes in the light paradigm. Therefore, strict environmental conditions are maintained in the lab to ensure accurate research analysis.

Masri and her team are truly racing against time to find new discoveries. In the meantime, there are several lifestyle factors we should consider to avoid throwing our circadian clocks off schedule. These include limiting irregular sleep and wake cycles, minimizing exposure to light at night, chronic jet lag and eating at the wrong time of day. Eating late night munchies is unhealthy for our internal clock too. Caloric intake is critical during the active period of our day, but not at night. Also, not just when we eat, but what we eat has been shown to alter our biological pacemaker, including a high-fat diet, time-restricted feeding and fasting cycles.

Just as the pendulum of a clock has momentum and energy, the V Foundation does too. We know we must accelerate research to achieve Victory Over Cancer®. Our momentum is fueled by the nearly 17 million cancer survivors today, a number that keeps increasing. Yet, additional research is needed to save more lives. We look forward to learning more about Masri and her team’s essential discoveries as they continue to alter the course of cancer cells. There’s not a moment to lose